Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.
John Stuart Mill
It’s been a while now since I last wrote about the Teaching Sequence for Independence, so I’ll start with a brief recap on what has come to be meant by ‘independent learning’. Up until relatively recently there has been a strongly held belief amongst many teachers that pupils will only become independent if we encourage our pupils to learn independently. In essence, this usually means independently of the teacher. This is, of course, nuts. If we really want our pupils to flourish, then we should give them free and unfettered access to our expertise.
Every year we see universities claiming that undergraduates are unable to learn independently and accusing schools for ‘spoon feeding’. Quite rightly, schools point out that they do loads of ‘independent learning’ and so it must be the fault of universities themselves because of all those tedious lectures. And never the twain shall meet. I reckon that we’ve made a mistake though. I think that doing ‘independent learning’ all too often results in dependency. If we really want our pupils to flourish then we need to teach them in such a way that will result in them actually becoming independent.
For the record, here is the teaching sequence I recommend following:
In a number of more recent posts about differentiation, I have made the case for making pupils struggle. But as a number of people have challenged me to explain my contention that if struggle is an important condition in which learning occurs, surely strategies like direct instruction and ‘worked examples’ which seek to reduce struggle have no place?
I tried to address the question here, but In order to try to make my position clear, I offer the following theoretical underpinning:
Firstly, learning is a marathon not a sprint. As Kirschner, Sweller & Clark point out, “If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.” This suggests we should be less concerned about what’s going on in individual lessons and more focussed on longer-term learning goals: what will pupils know or be able to do next lesson, next month or next year?
So how can we ensure that pupils make these long-term changes to memory? Robert Coe contends that “Learning happens when people have to think hard.” This seems right and is directly connected to Daniel Willingham‘s proposition that “Memory is the residue of thought.” What we think about is what we will remember and thinking ‘hard’ is more likely to produce long-term retention.
So far so good. But the problem is, as Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking, Fast and Slow, “Anything that occupies your working memory reduces your ability to think.” He discusses that fact that maintaining a walking speed above 14 minutes a mile will occupy working memory and therefore reduce our ability to think. If someone asks us to think about a complex problem when we are walking we will, most probably, stop in order to give the matter our full attention. This presents us with something of a vicious circle: until we have ‘thought hard’ about a subject we will be unlikely to have transferred essential knowledge from our working memory to long-term memory, but unless we think hard, such transfer is unlikely.
The problem was neatly expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson when he said, “Every artist was first an amateur.” Willingham puts it another way:
Whenever you see an expert doing something differently from the way a non-expert does it, it may well be that the expert used to do it the way the novice does it, and that doing so was a necessary step on the way to expertise.
Experts and novices think in qualitatively different ways. But in order to be an expert, first we have to be a novice. The problem with ‘independent learning’ is that it attempts to short cut this process and assumes that if we get novices to work on the sorts of problems experts work on then they will think like experts. Sadly, this is not the case.
This then is the reason why I think direction instruction and worked examples may be vital. Explaining new concepts clearly provides pupils with the knowledge they need in order to think. You cannot think about something you know nothing about. And the more you know, the more sophisticated your thinking is likely to be. I am able to think deeply about education, but am incapable of thinking about quantum physics because I know nothing about it.
Then, if I want pupils to produce anything of worth, I need to give them access to my expert thought processes. I need to ‘show’ them how I think by talking through an example. If I don’t do this and instead rely on bullet pointed success criteria, then pupils will only have a very vague idea of how to improve. It turns out we don’t learn well from watch experts perform. I used to believe that I could become better at tennis by watching Wimbledon. Frustratingly, it wasn’t until I took some lessons and had an expert coach explain how to stand, how to hold the racket, how to move and, crucially, how to think, that I started to improve.
So, the Explain and Model stages of the teaching sequence are about providing the material we want our pupils to think about and reducing the quantity of information they are required to hold in working memory by providing them with the knowledge they haven’t yet gotten around to storing in long-term memory. This allows them to concentrate on thinking rather than on remembering. The Scaffold stage is where pupils can be asked to think in increasingly challenging circumstances: the scaffolding we provide should allow pupils to think about things which seem impossible; it should seek to make the impossible possible. And then pupils are ready to Practise by tackling problems of increasing complexity in an effort to move them from competence to mastery. If we’re content with mere competence, we’re unlikely to get to the point where our understanding of complex concepts can be drawn into working memory as complete chunks whenever needed. The changes that will have taken place in long-term memory must be practised in order for pupils to be truly independent.
The first two stages are about freeing up working memory to allow students to think and therefore remember and the final two stages are to provide support and opportunity to ensure that thinking becomes increasing less dependent on the teacher.
I hope this clarification is helpful. If you’re interested, the following series of posts might help to explain in further detail:
Independence vs independent learning
Great teaching happens in cycles
Stage 1: Explain
Stage 2: Model
Stage 3: Scaffold
Stage 4: Practise